We continue with our fantasy positional rankings, this time moving on to the hot corner. Third base is one of the stronger positions in baseball right now, but PECOTA does not seem too enthused about many of the players. While a few are well above average, PECOTA has forecasted many of the players for merely average production, including some names that may surprise you given their upside and past performance.

Third base is also intriguing thanks to the number of players who double as first baseman, which raises the question of whether or not you should draft two first baseman and skip out on a true third baseman if one of them can man that position? When is a good time to pick at this position, since so many of the options have similar production? That’s what we’ll try to sort out with today’s list.

In order to make these rankings, I used the 2009 weighted-mean PECOTA projections as a base, and tweaked the results as I saw fit. This isn’t a descending list of projected 2009 VORP by any means. Make sure you check out the players’ 75th– and 25th-percentile forecasts on their PECOTA cards once they’re released, as those may help you to make decisions between players you might be debating over.

Since this keeps coming up in the comments, I want to say here that I am ranking the players at their primary position; if you don’t see a player here, it’s because he’s either not good enough or because he’s most likely ranked at a different position. This allows me to cover more players for those of you in deeper leagues.

Rank Name              Team      PA  R  HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
 1.  David Wright      Mets     703 121 32 107 20  .302/.400/.538  0.97
 2.  Chipper Jones     Braves   567 104 23  90  5  .341/.443/.564  0.95
 3.  Alex Rodriguez    Yankees  624  97 30  98 18  .282/.373/.508  1.03
 4.  Aramis Ramirez    Cubs     615  85 26 101  2  .288/.363/.509  1.02
 5.  Garrett Atkins    Rockies  644  90 26  97  3  .302/.371/.510  1.04
 6.  Evan Longoria     Rays     604  80 27  88  7  .266/.342/.482  0.91
 7.  Edwin Encarnacion Reds     577  82 24  80  5  .283/.365/.493  0.85
 8.  Ryan Zimmerman    Nats     597  78 19  84  4  .289/.358/.471  0.92
 9.  Alex Gordon       Royals   628  83 23  84 13  .258/.342/.457  0.80
10.  Kevin Kouzmanoff  Padres   639  76 24  92  2  .275/.331/.465  0.83

David Wright is one of the few players in the game who you could classify as perfect, as he has an amazing balance of power, patience, ability to hit for average, speed, and, if your league counts it, defensive play. He’s a candidate to be taken with one of the first few picks; PECOTA thinks he’s capable of putting up a 30/20 season with a ton of runs this year, and his Beta shows no reason to doubt that.

Chipper Jones is up there with Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez as one of my favorite hitters to watch, and it looks like the forecast would agree. The one problem with Jones, and one you should all be familiar with, is that you’ll need to draft a back-up third baseman for peace of mind, because Jones will more than likely miss time with one injury or another. That shouldn’t stop you from drafting him though, because in both roto and head-to-head leagues that batting line is far too good to be ignored, which is why he’s ranked ahead of Alex Rodriguez. Honestly, if not for the difference in steals between Jones and Wright and the potential for missed playing time, this 37-year-old could be ranked #1.

If you don’t want to draft two third basemen or you can’t get Jones, A-Rod is not a bad second pick. PECOTA thinks he’s where David Wright was a few years ago before he made the leap; an impressive player, but no longer one of the most productive in the game. Based on last year, I think Rodriguez will hit closer to .300/.385/.550 or so; in my mind he’s much closer to Jones than that forecast suggests.

Aramis Ramirez is in the middle of a great lineup, and PECOTA thinks he’s capable of being well above-average at third; he’s an easy pick for the fourth slot based on that context alone. The same can be said for Garrett Atkins, who plays half of his home games at Coors, and though it’s a great forecast, Coors Field is the reason that he’s ranked where he is. Atkins also doesn’t have to worry about Ian Stewart taking his job, as the Rockies are considering giving Stewart some starts in left field to make sure he’s in the lineup while also keeping Atkins’ bat around.

I like Evan Longoria more than PECOTA’s weighted-mean projection, but I can understand the concerns. He struck out over 27 percent of the time last year, something that will need to be rectified going forward if he wants to keep his batting average from cratering. Other than that, he’s David Wright Lite, and he could finish the year as the third- or fourth-most productive guy at the position, depending on how well he can handle how the pitchers adjust to him.

Edwin Encarnacion had a very low line-drive rate last year (15.9 percent), but his .267 BABIP was still a little below expectations. Throw in the fact that he normally hits more liners (19.2 percent for his career, even with 2008 factored in) and you can see why PECOTA expects him to bounce back, as it takes BABIP regression in both directions into account. If he can keep the power he brought last year (the .215 ISO was a career high) and increase his average, then he easily earns his spot.

Ryan Zimmerman struggles against right-handers (.259/.316/.417 in 2008), but he did at least show signs of life in the second half by hitting .306/.370/.455. That makes his projection a bit more believable, and with the similarities between many of these guys, whatever upside someone can give you should be recognized as a potential edge.

Alex Gordon is someone I wrote about extensively a few weeks back. Kevin Kouzmanoff had right-shoulder surgery over the offseason and there’s some question about whether he’ll be around for opening day, but if healthy he’s going to be a solid third baseman again, despite playing in Petco. His second half was a mess, but the surgery should help fix that. Kouzmanoff has hit .282/.330/.488 on the road the past two years, even with that awful stretch when he first came into the league and his poor second half last year.

Rank Name           Team        PA   R HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
11.  Mike Lowell    Red Sox    469  51 14  69  2  .272/.332/.442  0.85
12.  Mark Reynolds  D'backs    567  79 29  84  9  .260/.344/.506  0.90
13.  Troy Glaus     Cardinals  549  70 22  81  1  .257/.366/.459  1.04
14.  Adrian Beltre  Mariners   611  77 21  88  9  .271/.330/.453  0.92
15.  Ty Wigginton   Astros     459  56 19  69  4  .272/.335/.477  2.00
16.  Jorge Cantu    Marlins    583  67 20  79  4  .269/.326/.454  0.91
17.  Melvin Mora    Orioles    391  47 12  53  3  .271/.331/.437  0.84
18.  Chone Figgins  Angels     484  68  4  35 29  .263/.340/.352  0.80
19.  Carlos Guillen Tigers     535  72 14  64  9  .271/.349/.426  1.02
20.  Andy LaRoche   Pirates    330  43  8  37  4  .267/.359/.413  0.99

Part of Lowell’s problem last year was his hip; he’ll be ready in time for spring training, and Fenway has boosted his production since he arrived, so that projection may be a little low. With the increase in playing time and hitting in the middle of that lineup, expect those counting stats to be higher.

Mark Reynolds continues to put up solid lines for the year as a whole, but if you play in a head-to-head league, you’re going to have weeks at a time where you have to bury him on your bench. Consider this ranking to be higher for roto leagues, where these things even out more. Troy Glaus surprised me by rebounding despite moving from a hitter’s to a pitcher’s park, and PECOTA thinks he’s still got something left for 2009.

Adrian Beltre’s contract seems worth it now that it’s almost over, doesn’t it? Funny… the market continued to change and the prices of players less productive than Beltre continued to skyrocket. He’s not going to hit much more than the other options in front of him, but if your league happens to count defense, you’ll be in love.

Ty Wigginton’s forecast is bothersome. PECOTA thinks he’s going to hit, but also shows no confidence whatsoever in that assertion; check out that Beta. It’s the fifth-highest among all hitters, behind just Ryan Budde, Troy Patton, Stephen Holm, and Mike Rabelo. Why do I mention it? Because if you don’t have much faith in Wigginton, then you can skip to the next name on the list.

Cantu isn’t a great option at first base, but at third he’s a solid back-of-the-list pick at the position, especially in deep leagues. He should be eligible at both, which is something to remember if you draft a brittle player at first base. Melvin Mora hit .285/.342/.483 last year, and ranked ninth in VORP for third baseman. Given that he’s 37 years old and has been much worse than that in the recent past, I have a hard time believing that he’ll do that well again, and PECOTA agrees.

Let me get this out of the way before someone yells at me for unfairly ranking Chone Figgins: If you need the steals and Figgins is on the board, rank him higher than this on your own lists. If you do not need the steals, then there’s nothing to see here, folks. PECOTA thinks that Figgins’ days as a useful hitter that steals a lot of bases are over, and it even threw up a pretty confident Beta to back up that assertion. If you’ve already picked your third baseman or if you missed out on all of the great ones and need some steals, he has his uses; otherwise, he’s lost some of his luster.

Carlos Guillen is probably a better real-life player than a fantasy one since he moved off of shortstop and over to third. He didn’t log any time at short in 2008, so he’s probably no longer eligible to play there, which severely limits his value. He’s hitting like a middle infielder at the corner; you could easily replace Guillen on the list with someone like Mark DeRosa.

Andy LaRoche has a low forecast, but if you’re at the point in the draft where you’re considering drafting him for his upside, then you may as well. Just don’t expect him to man third base for you out of the gate, especially since PECOTA thinks he’s going to slug like a backup catcher.

Just missing the list this time around: Bill Hall and Matt Gamel may both end up playing at third base for the Brewers. Based on PECOTA (.253/.332/.459 for Hall, .258/.325/.431 for Gamel) neither of the two is going to win you a league on their own, but whichever one ends up with the job will get plate appearances, and they could beat out some of the players at the back end of these rankings. The aforementioned Ian Stewart should be third-base eligible, even if Atkins is at the position full-time. Keep an eye on him in spring training to see if he lands a job elsewhere on the diamond, because you can just use him where you need him if he does. You have to embrace the Coors effect when you can, after all.

In addition to the just missed guys, third base is a position where multiple first basemen also have eligibility. Miguel Cabrera should still be a third baseman for at least one more season in many leagues; he’d rank fourth on this list. Kevin Youkilis is another player with eligibility at both; he’d probably come in around the Zimmerman/Gordon area. Chris Davis qualifies at third base as well, and with his power potential he could slide in ahead of Youkilis’ hypothetical ranking.

Thanks to Ben Lindbergh for data assistance.